Patience may be Timberwolves' best weapon in courting Rubio
If Ricky Rubio delays his NBA move, that wouldn't be all bad for the Timberwolves
History has shown a few teams have benefited by waiting for top draft picks
In Jonny Flynn, the Wolves have a fallback plan if Rubio plays elsewhere
Hardly anyone with an opinion on how the Ricky Rubio situation should play out is thinking about what serves the Minnesota Timberwolves best. Or even second-best.
Fans around the NBA, rival teams, media voices, even near-disinterested observers have their takes on Rubio and what, so far, appears to be some reluctance to cozy up to the team that drafted him with the fifth pick last week. It is way too early to label the relationship between the Wolves and the intriguing teenaged point guard a predicament, never mind a stalemate, an impasse, a dilemma or a problem. The report Tuesday by the Spanish newspaper El Periodico that Rubio had dropped his lawsuit against DKV Joventut and would fulfill the final two years of his contract was sketchy at best, no clear indication that a buyout still might or might not be pursued (a Wolves spokesman said late in the day that the team had heard nothing about that from Rubio or his agent).
It definitely isn't enough to stem the flow of suggestions for what Minnesota "must" do, right now if not yesterday. Most of the unsolicited advice places a priority on on Rubio's well-being, the Knicks and a handful of other possible destinations for the Spanish prodigy, NBA marketing ambitions and TV ratings, certain unspoken assumptions about flyover markets and a zeal to stamp a letter grade on the Wolves' draft and on new president David Kahn's first 100 days. This is the same perspective, more or less, espoused by folks who considered Kevin Garnett's exit from Minnesota to be inevitable; they started yammering about it in 1997 and finally, a decade later, had the chutzpah to crow, "See? Told ya so."
What, though, is best for the Wolves? Well, the storybook scenario would be for Rubio and agent Dan Fegan to negotiate a reasonable buyout of his contract with Joventut, join the NBA club this summer, immediately fall in love with teammates, coaches (whenever they get some), the fans and the area, and bring new meaning -- with his dazzling YouTube passing ability -- to that staple of local cuisine, the Minnesota "hot dish."
What would qualify as second-best? Maybe not doing any of the above anytime soon, but rather, as El Periodico indicates, staying overseas for a season or two. Or three. Or four.
Let's pause here for an interlude of history on NBA deferred gratification:
-- In the spring of 1978, saddled with a Celtics squad that sputtered to its worst finish in 28 years (32-50), Red Auerbach surprised many by using the No. 6 pick in the draft on Indiana State forward Larry Bird, a junior-eligible by rules in place then who planned to play his final college season. Things got worse for the Celtics -- 29-53 -- but then Bird arrived and they got breathtakingly better: 61-21 in 1979-80, 62-20 the next season and the first of three NBA championships in six years.
-- The Hawks didn't risk much in 1985 when they used the 77th pick in the draft (fourth round) on Lithuanian big man Arvydas Sabonis, considered by those who scouted him to be one of the globe's most gifted players. The selection was voided because Sabonis was only 20, but the following year, Portland raised the stakes by taking the 7-foot-3 center in the first round, No. 24 overall. Cold War tensions before the dissolution of the USSR kept Sabonis from playing in the NBA, and by the time he arrived as a 30-year-old, 300-pound rookie in 1995-96, his game had slowed considerably. But his instincts remained, those that made him a massive pick-and-pop weapon with a still-uncanny passing touch. The Blazers were glad to have him, three times winning 50 or more games and reaching the playoffs all seven seasons he spent in Portland.
-- David Robinson already was referred to as the Admiral when he went No. 1 to the Spurs in the 1987 draft. Did someone say draft? Robinson actually had enlisted, and owed the Navy a two-year commitment before testing NBA waters in 1989-90. The Spurs, who went 28-54 to earn their shot at Robinson, went 52-112 while they waited. But he was worth it; the 10-time All-Star helped them win titles in 1999 and 2003. He will be inducted with a stellar Class of 2009 into the Naismith Hall of Fame in September.
-- Portland, two rounds after nabbing Sabonis in 1986, spent its third-round pick on Drazen Petrovic, who had been touted as the "Yugoslavian Michael Jordan" soon after turning pro for BC Sibenka at age 15. Petrovic was 21 at the time but didn't come to the NBA until he was 25. Frustrated by limited minutes in the Blazers' backcourt in his second season, he requested a trade and got it, blossoming with New Jersey. He became one of the league's most revered long-range shooters and earned All-NBA third-team status (22.3 ppg) in 1992-93. That June, Petrovic was killed in an accident on a German autobahn.
-- Because Bulls GM Jerry Krause liked Toni Kukoc, using the team's second-round pick on the Croatian sensation in 1990, Bulls stars Jordan and Scottie Pippen were predisposed not to like him. "We don't know when he'll be here, but he's worth waiting for," Krause said at the time, but Jordan and Pippen were unconvinced. They went so far as to clamp down on the 6-foot-10 wing player in July 1992, when Kukoc shot 2-for-11 with seven turnovers against the original Dream Team, and publicly suggested that Krause review the videotape. But Kukoc did make it to Chicago and won over Jordan and Pippen, who might not have three of their six championship rings without him. Kukoc averaged 14.1 points, 4.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 29.5 minutes in six-plus seasons in Chicago, before finishing with Philadelphia, Atlanta and Milwaukee.
-- Even Manu Ginobili was surprised when San Antonio used the 57th pick in 1999 on him. An admitted late bloomer, the Argentine guard spent three more seasons in Italy before shining in the 2002 FIBA World Championships, then joining the Spurs in 2002-03. Ginobili helped them win a title as a rookie, was an All-Star by his third season and might rank now as the best second-round pick in NBA history.
OK, back to the issue at hand: The moral of all these stories is that good things can, in fact, come to those who wait. Allowing an 18-year-old, physically undeveloped "emerging adult" (as we say these days) to become 19, 20 or 21 on a Euro team's dime wouldn't be all bad. Allowing Rubio to grow up and reside somewhere other than with mom and dad before starting the meter on his views of the Wolves, Minnesota and other league cities could be good. Even Stephon Marbury admitted he might have handled differently his decision to stay or go had he made it at 26 or 27 rather than 21.
Those monitoring the situation believe that Kahn did, in fact, throw a little gas on this fire by drafting Syracuse's Jonny Flynn five minutes after Rubio landed in his lap. The team's split in commitment to the two point guards, and its divvying of minutes, instantly became a concern. But it also gave the Wolves the perfect fallback plan, suspenders to a Rubio belt. They will have a highly prized rookie in their backcourt in 2009-10. They would prefer it to be Rubio. But for now, it's OK if it might be Flynn.
"If it means we have to wait a year, we wait a year," Kahn has said repeatedly, trying to defuse things. "If we had to wait, God forbid, two years, he'd be 20 when he got here. The last thing we need to do is become overwrought today."
Here's a little Rubio primer worth remembering: Minnesota will hold his NBA rights indefinitely. The only exception would be if Rubio were to sit out a full year from basketball -- professional or otherwise -- and resubmit his name for the draft (at which point the Wolves might select him again anyway). When he does come over, he will be paid the mandated salary for the No. 5 pick on the rookie scale in effect at that time. So it behooves the player and Fegan to start his rookie deal -- two years guaranteed, two one-year options, one qualifying season -- as soon as possible.
If this escalates into a game of roundball staredown, trading Rubio always is an alternative. His value likely will rise, because (worst-case scenario) while he might never play in Minnesota, every other team theoretically will be vying with the other 28 if it wants him. Who knows? It's possible that, with two or three more seasons in Europe, Rubio might prove to be ordinary, which wouldn't get Minnesota its first-round pick back but could save it $8 million to $12 million by not signing him at all. Hey, people had high hopes for Nikoloz Tskitishvili when he was 18, too.
Waiting isn't foolproof: Orlando paid a hefty price for using the No. 11 pick in 2005 on Spain's Fran Vazquez, who still hasn't logged an NBA minute. San Antonio has been kept on hold by Spain's Tiago Splitter (No. 28, 2007), and got tired of waiting for Luis Scola (No. 56, 2002) just in time to trade his rights to Houston in July 2007, then watch him come over and blossom with the Rockets.
Still, overwrought is the way of the world these days. Gratification deferred isn't gratifying at all. Factor in the drumbeat of the blogosphere and the appetite of a 24/7 media world, and it seems clear: Red Auerbach would have been fired for not drafting Reggie Theus in 1978.
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